Genndy Tartakovsky Talks Making ‘Primal’ Animation With Little Dialogue And Plenty Of Emotion

'Primal' creator Genndy Tartakovsky
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

When Genndy Tartakovsky was wrapping up the final season of his Emmy-winning series Samarai Jack, he pitched an idea he’d long been playing with to his former boss at Cartoon Network, Mike Lazzo—the man who’d green-lit the Moscow-born, Chicago-based animator’s career-setting Dexter’s Laboratory, more than 20 years before.

Tartakovsky’s Primal started off as an idea aimed at children from the ages of six to 11. But as Tartakovsky’s career trajectory progressed, from Dexter’s Lab, to The Powerpuff Girls to Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars, which earned him a further 2 Emmys, so, too, did his ability to reinterpret his idea. It became the five half-hour episodes that make up the series as it is today: a visceral, bold 2D study of the relationship between a dinosaur (Fang) and a caveman (Spear), brought together by shared tragedy, with striking visuals and, barring a few grunts, no dialogue.

DEADLINE: Primal plays on something you used to do in your previous cartoons and animations, where you would feature scenes that had no dialogue, and extends that. Was this something you always wanted to do—make a whole animation out of something where there was so little dialogue?

Adult Swim

GENNDY TARTAKOVSKY: Like you say, it definitely was something that throughout my career I’ve always dabbled with. And I think because I love animation, I always try to do it. If I could do it without dialogue, I’ll always attempt to do it. When we were working on the last season of Samurai Jack, we had sequences just like in the original series, but because they were more adult, they were more intense. When the series aired, there was such a strong reaction to them that I started to think about like, “Well, I wonder if I could actually now make a whole show and tell the whole story just made up of these sequences that always get the biggest reactions.” And that was kind of the spark to do it this way.

DEADLINE: How do you feel the drawings then, the characters themselves, take on more resonance, more meaning in this way? It’s incredible how moving they can be to watch.

TARTAKOVSKY: Yeah. It’s probably more of a shock or surprise where you think that dialogue is something that would draw you in more. Because we’re so used to hearing dialogue, we almost don’t have to even look, we can just hear it and do something else because we’re so multifunctional now. We can just hear the dialogue. But because the dialogue has gone, it drew people in more, and in a funny way, it made them pay attention even more, which was great.

DEADLINE: Is there an added challenge that comes with that, or an obstacle that you have to overcome when you don’t have dialogue?

Adult Swim

TARTAKOVSKY: To communicate the ideas, it’s all about the acting and the expression and the shots. Everything becomes much more heightened. Sometimes when you can just say a line, it’s really easy to draw in one frame. But then when we’re doing it without dialogue, you have to take special care to communicate everything. And so it’s extra drawings, extra poses, you need stronger animation. And so all those things just become more time-consuming. Not that they’re harder to do, but you just have to have a lot of trust. I find myself like, “Does this make sense? Are people going to follow it?” And so you have to start building a new trust with the way I’m telling the stories. And because it is more for adults, I had that faith that people are just going to pick up on it and they’re going to read into it. We’re starting to get to really some more complicated story ideas and still doing it without dialogue.

DEADLINE: So which one was particularly challenging, or where did it present this the most?

TARTAKOVSKY: Well, the one I think we were having the most amount of, let’s say pathos or story is the one with the mammoths where it’s kind of like the circle of life. One dies, so others can go on and then they go, and bury him.

DEADLINE: It was heartbreaking.

TARTAKOVSKY: Yeah. And it was so emotional. Also, [it had] the element of there is no bad guy. Spear and Fang, the caveman and dinosaur, have to survive and they have to eat. And this one was the older one and he has to die, so somebody else can survive. It’s kind of like watching a nature show. Like, you want the polar bear to live, but you also don’t want him to kill the baby seal. And that’s the great drama of nature that we really wanted to focus on; that we don’t necessarily, in every episode, have a “bad guy.” It’s kind of just survival, and survival itself is hard and complicated. And so I think that was the story that we were really excited about in the first five episodes, to see if we could really tell that story emotionally, and that you love our characters. And at the same time you feel sadness for this mammoth that has to die.

DEADLINE: The series starts off as this unlikely friendship between a dinosaur and caveman—can they be friends? And then the rest of it is, what does that look like? Where did you come up with the friendship between beings that existed millions of years apart?

Adult Swim

TARTAKOVSKY: Originally, I just started doodling away, like maybe eight years or so ago, I started doodling this little kid riding a dinosaur, and it was very cute, more for kids, almost more in like the Dexter’s Lab style that I was doing. And the story and the idea never really went anywhere. I really believe in this organic process of creating shows and characters. Then, years later, I started to pick it up again and started to add more adults. Because we’ve done the brother and sister, the men and women relationships, I wanted to explore something a little different. I’ve had these two big dogs. I had an English Mastiff, who was like 215 pounds, and now I have a St. Bernard, and the big dogs have so much personality and there was so many fun things that I’ve observed and experienced with them. I thought it would be fun to do a show that focuses on more of a man and beast relationship. Not necessarily that the dinosaur’s a dog, but we wanted to give it as much personality without going overboard into like a Scooby Doo-type situation. We wanted it to still act like an animal and, especially with the last 10 years of all these nature shows, you watch them and be like, “Wow, these creatures have so much personality and so much drama and life.” I wanted it be, like, you can have a relationship between a man and the beast and have this complexity and depth.

DEADLINE: Coming back to that idea, all these years later, having done Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, and others, what did doing those shows give you that you perhaps didn’t have before, that helped you make this series?

TARTAKOVSKY: It was really the confidence and just the maturing of my ability. I’ve been struggling with drawing my whole life, and I can do it professionally, but I want to get better all the time. I keep striving to get better in everything that I do. Five years ago, I wouldn’t be able to draw this show the way it looks. It’s extremely challenging and then there’s a specific look that I was after. Yet every series that we do, everything, every new episode, we learn something for the most part. You learn how to communicate a joke better, or communicate drama better, or communicate emotions. And the thing that’s probably matured the most, I think, besides my drawing and storyboarding, is timing. I remember starting on Dexter and everything’s got to be snappy and sharp and quick, and you’re just honing in how fast you can do things.

And now through my career, I’m trying to slow down. You’re trying to stop, let the people, let your audience get sucked into it rather than constantly cut, cut, cut, cut. That’s another level of the show that makes it more immersive. I’m taking my time and I’m letting it breathe, and you start to really feel it more. When you watch a movie like The Revenant or any like Sergio Leone, classic film, there’s a pacing to it that eases you in; it really draws you in. I really wanted to have that. So I think timing things twice as long as I was just on Samurai Jack and it giving you confidence. But I could have never done it five years ago. I would have been too afraid that it’s too slow and everybody’s going to switch it off.

DEADLINE: I was going to ask you about your pacing, because it is slower than your other creations. You mentioned The Revenant and Sergio Leone—were there any non-animation materials or films that you used as inspiration for this? Over and above those, was there anything else?

Adult Swim

TARTAKOVSKY: Yeah, the level of The Revenant felt really good, like it’s this struggle and nature as a character also was important. I kind of grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and so I love the way ’70s films feel. There’s this movie called Sorcerer — it’s William Freidkin and it’s just the most intense film. And you feel the greenness of it, the rawness. That sort of inspiration. Generally, I don’t think I look to one film for this. It was more about the feeling that I get watching something like Apocalypse Now or some of these other films. And so you want to have this rawness and at the same time, there’s a pulpy element, which makes it fun. Like we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

DEADLINE: How do you see the violence in Primal playing into the characters themselves, and driving the overall story itself?

TARTAKOVSKY: The violence was definitely something that we didn’t want to just do gratuitously, because we could have been twice as violent. But we wanted it always to be shocking in a way, be like, “Wow! That’s pretty graphic,” and at the same time it’s always from the story, and from how intense the situation is. So we always try to balance it. We’re just trying to find the right amount of violence, where it’s not gory, but at the same time it’s impactful. So it’s always driven by the story and what we’re actually trying to say.

DEADLINE: Is there an episode you’re particularly proud of?

TARTAKOVSKY: As a whole, the animation is so complex and so the communication of their relationship, between a person and a dinosaur is hard. There’s a scene where I remember when we first saw it and it didn’t have any sound. It was in the fourth episode where Spear had just finished destroying this giant spider and Fang is standing there and she’s got spiderwebs on her, and Spear just comes up to her and they share a look and it was like they were alive. To create characters is the hardest thing. Because we’re just drawing with them and we’re bringing them to life. There’s no actors that can bring them to life. This is all manufactured. It sounds cliché, but it is just the fun of it to manufacture something just from these two-dimensional drawings. Building their relationship is the thing that I’m most proud of, and then seeing people’s reactions. I always thought people just react to the violence and kind of the sexiness of it all, but really the biggest thing that they reacted to was the relationship. So that’s been incredible.

DEADLINE: What still excites you about animation as an art form, as a craft?

TARTAKOVSKY: For me, I’m an animator at heart, so just having a chance to do animation and seeing animation the way I want it to be, where it’s caricatured, it’s not realistic, there’s a cartoony element of it — it’s just something that I’ve loved since I was 10. I still get excited by seeing it and seeing what other people do with the characters and then telling these types of stories. These are very untraditional stories that we’re doing and they’re like these little snapshots, and it’s fun. I don’t know what you like. I don’t know what anybody likes. I just know what I like. And so I’ve always tried to be sincere about it. I really believe in this. I love this sincerely and if I could communicate it maybe other people could like it, and that’s kind of been the whole goal after making all these shows for almost 30 years. I try to have an honesty about them. I’m not just going to do a cowboy show because cowboys are popular. It’s not like anybody was screaming for a caveman and dinosaur show. It was something that came from my love of Conan and reading all these pulp stories; that I wanted to do kind of my version. The fun of it is definitely the animation, the drawing, but also now telling different types of stories. I think I’m having more fun with that than I have ever before.

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